Paul Poteat’s 13-year-old daughter is the only one in her class without a smartphone.
“They give the students 10 minutes at the end of the day when they can be on their phones, and she is sitting there looking around as every other person is on their phone,” said Poteat, who is the Midwest network director for Campus Outreach.
Poteat and his wife aren’t withholding a smartphone from their daughter because they want her to be lonely and bored at the end of the school day. They’re doing it because they’ve done their homework. They’ve thought and talked about how to handle their phones. And they think social media should come with a warning label.
TGC talked with Poteat about what social media is selling, why it seems like the Matrix, and how to get out.
How do you talk to college students about their use of social media?
Philip Morris, which is the largest producer of cigarettes, is worth about $165 billion. The brewing company Anheuser-Busch is worth about $110 billion. Retail giant Target is worth $75 billion.
Facebook platforms—which include Instagram, WhatsApp, and Oculus—are worth $538 billion.
I ask my students, “How much money have you given to social media?” And, of course, they haven’t. Then I tell them, “What is social media selling? They’re selling you. You are the product. And they’re selling you to companies that will solicit your interest and your consumption. That’s where Facebook makes its money.”
Social media can be used for good or for bad, but it isn’t amoral. It’s being controlled by someone, and that person—or corporation, or algorithm—is seeking to control you. What I’m trying to help students understand is that they’re in the Matrix. They have to be aware of what’s happening to them.
Social media can be used for good or for bad, but it isn’t amoral.
How do you know if you’re stuck in the Matrix—if you’re addicted to social media?
If you’re a recovering alcoholic, then you’d work hard not to go to a bar. If you were trying to kick nicotine, you’d pay at the pump rather than going inside the gas station. But it’s harder when you’re addicted to your phone, because it’s always on you, and you use it as a phone, clock, calendar, calculator, and more. And every notification is tapping you on the shoulder.
I ask students to go into their phones to check their screen time. These are Christian students who are looking to pursue God in their lives. And they’re on their phones five to six hours a day. They’re getting 300 notifications a day, picking it up 120 times a day. I don’t think people are aware of this. Even if you take away the time spent on phone calls or listening to an audiobook, they’re still on there, on social media, for two to three hours a day.
What I want for them is awareness. And once they’re aware, we can ask, “How do we walk forward?” It’s not just about what you’re doing on social media, but it’s what you could be doing with the time it’s taking up.
I try to help them understand how powerful the technology rule is in their life—in my life too. We can’t begin to take steps away until we realize it’s a problem.
But even after we realize it’s a problem, we’re still in trouble, aren’t we? There isn’t a Social Media Users Anonymous. What can we do?
The students will say about their time spent or pickups, “Oh, man, that’s embarrassing. But is it really harming my life? How bad is it?”
Occasionally, they’ll be up for the challenge of taking a week without social media. In The Tech-Wise Family, Andy Crouch recommends going screen-free for an hour a day, a day a week, and a week a year, which I’ve really appreciated and tried to implement.
After a week or so, the students go back, and it isn’t long before they’re back to their original habits. Unless you cut it off completely, it’s hard to do more than white-knuckle it for a season.
In Matthew, Jesus talks about a demon who is removed from a person and wanders around, but when he comes back, he brings seven more demons with him (Matt. 12:44–45). The way I take that is, if all you do is get the demon out of the house, and you don’t fill the house with something, it’ll come back worse than it was before. It’s not good enough just to get rid of social media addiction—what are you replacing it with?
It’s not good enough just to get rid of social media addiction—what are you replacing it with?
For example, while the other kids get their smartphone time at school, my daughter finishes her homework. After she gets home, when the other kids are working, she’s playing outside. We’re replacing screen time with outside play.
Paul also talks about putting on and putting off—putting off sin, vice, the old self; putting on Christ, the armor of God, the new self.
In Colossians 3, we’re told to put on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Honestly, those sound like the opposite of what social media creates—apathy, meanness, pride, self-promotion, and hurry. So the putting on that’s necessary is actually something that social media is somewhat antithetical to.
Could you use social media and the internet to put on virtue? If you could do that, you’d be using it well.
The Gospel Coalition